We’re headed down to Braddock,” my uncle said, Blue Öyster Cult flooding from the car stereo. “Gonna watch the barges pass through the locks.”

His white Cutlass was idling at the curb outside the schoolyard at St. James, where he stood with the driver’s side door propped open and the front seat folded forward so I could climb in the back. I threw my book bag in first and slid across the maroon interior, my Catholic school uniform of blue oxford shirt and khaki pants looking shabby against the smooth velour.

“Hey there, kid,” said Bozo, my uncle’s friend, who was riding shotgun. “Long time no see.” He flashed an awkward smile in my direction as blue cigarette smoke billowed from his nostrils, two upside-down smokestacks spitting exhaust against a face scattered with freckles and a receding hairline of dirty red curls.

It was winter of 1986, not long after my ninth birthday. Pittsburgh looked as it always did: dejected and lost beneath a canopy of swollen gray clouds. Same as he had for much of the past year, my uncle assumed the role of de facto babysitter. It was an arrangement part circumstance and part convenience. My parents both worked, and my uncle had lost his job at Heinz the year before. This meant we no longer received plastic Heinz pickle pins as souvenirs, but we did see a lot more of my uncle. Since the layoff, his days were often spent holed up in my grandmother’s house, where he lived with his wife and son—my aunt and cousin—drinking Miller High Life tall boys and watching Beverly Hills Cop on VHS.

When my uncle lost his job, I was old enough to know that it was bad to be unemployed. It must have stressed his marriage and his role as a father and placed undue pressure on his living arrangement with my grandmother. I was also old enough to have overheard conversations about his drinking problem. My father, my uncle’s younger brother, would pull him aside, and I would hear them talking in hushed tones. I always assumed my father was offering whatever help he could, trying in vain to change my uncle’s trajectory. But I never heard what they said to each other. Often my father’s concerns seemed to be lost in all the noise, and my uncle would change the subject, talking at normal volume again about the home remodeling project he had thrown himself into or reminiscing about their childhood.

Much later, I would learn that my uncle had been in and out rehab several times, and that my father was always there to help him get clean.

I was young to walk the mile alone from St. James to my family’s house in Princeton Park, situated high atop a hill in Wilkinsburg, so the responsibility of shepherding me home each day fell to my uncle. He often walked the half-dozen blocks from my grandmother’s house to my school, where he stood waiting at the edge of the playground in his olive-green military jacket — the same piece of clothing that my father and so many men of his generation brought home after the war in Vietnam. From a distance, my uncle could almost be confused for my father, hands tucked in his jacket pockets, body sloped against the chain-link fence, and brown hair swept across his forehead. The most notable difference—visible, at least—was that my uncle had a mustache that curled at the sides of his mouth, while my father was usually clean-shaven. But there were other differences beneath the surface. My uncle was outgoing and could command a room, his wit sharp and his sense of humor wry. In contrast, my father was quiet, strong, and dependable, the type of person who was always in your corner. As brothers, they balanced one another out.

In simpler times, my parents might have strung a house key on a shoestring, hung it around my neck, and told me to walk home and lock the door until they returned from work. But after the 1977 abduction and murder of Beth Lynn Barr, a six-year-old neighborhood girl who disappeared on her way home from Johnston School — which sat a mere two blocks from our front door — an irreversible fear had crept into our lives. My parents, my mother in particular, fretted over the safety of my sister and me. To walk home unaccompanied would have been borrowing trouble, tempting the types of strangers who snatched up children and separated them from the world.

So, when school let out each afternoon, my uncle watched over us — a surrogate parent pulling shift work until my mother or father came to pick us up. My sister, who is five years older than me, would meet us after stepping off a Port Authority bus from Shadyside, where she attended a Catholic high school. We then picked up my younger cousin — my uncle’s son — before returning to my grandmother’s house to zone out on Merrie Melodies cartoons, MTV, and bowls of Fruity Pebbles. Those long afternoons are when I first watched an odd mishmash of movies, like Back to the Future, The Blues Brothers, and To Live and Die in L.A.; where I first heard “Nights in White Satin” from the Moody Blues’ Days of Future Passed album; and where I flipped through my uncle’s dusty old records just to marvel at the art on the album sleeves, soaking up the wild colors on Santana’s Abraxas or the somber faces of the Doors on their self-titled debut.

“You know this song?” my uncle yelled from the second floor of my grandmother’s house, the sound of needle on vinyl hissing from the stereo speakers in his bedroom. “It’s ‘the Boss!’” With a bandanna tied across his forehead, my uncle held the neck of an invisible guitar that was slung across his shoulder as the opening notes of “Born in the USA” rumbled through the floorboards. When the vocals came in, my uncle silently mouthed Springsteen’s anthemic lyrics, his expression as animated as his body.

Born down in a dead man’s town
The first kick I took was when I hit the ground
End up like a dog that’s been beat too much
Till you spend half your life just covering up.

As the song built to the chorus, my uncle bounced up and down the hall — wearing a T-shirt, shorts, and tube socks — strumming his phantom guitar and smiling as if he were playing to a sold-out crowd and had done this a thousand times before. If for no other reason, the performance could have passed for a low-budget Saturday Night Live sketch for his commitment to the bit. When the chorus came back around, my uncle pointed at me as he danced down the steps and held his hand to his ear, urging us all to join in. But none of us were as electric as he was. As the song ended, he flopped down on the couch in the living room, forehead beaded with sweat.

It was exactly the kind of moment that could make spending time with my uncle so exhilarating. He was almost childlike, his charisma and dry sense of humor lending a certain sense of unpredictability to our afternoons.

But when my uncle arrived at St. James that day with Bozo, the three of us were alone. My sister wasn’t there, and my cousin was still at school. And something about my uncle seemed different. There was wild excitement in his eyes, a strange urgency in his voice. It was almost as if I were seeing an alternate personality. As he steered the Cutlass away from the curb at the school, he cranked the volume on the radio while mapping the route to Braddock in his head.

By the time we arrived in Braddock, the sky was darker than before, like someone had dimmed all the lights in the valley. From the back seat of my uncle’s car, I watched the dull flicker of the neighborhood as it passed by my window. Dead set on watching the coal barges pass through the locks and dam along the Monongahela River, my uncle drove down Talbot Avenue with a sense of urgency, as if he were leading us to some sacred place.

At the end of the street, the mill loomed before us in the distance — a mountain of blue-gray metal and smoke. My uncle talked loud to be heard over the din of the radio.

“Was there ever a time I wasn’t your chauffeur?” my uncle yelled in Bozo’s direction, his mouth cracked open with a smile.

“Fuck you,” Bozo said. “I used to drive your ass all over this city.”

“When was that? Must’ve been so far back I can’t remember.”

“Have another one, asshole. It might help your memory.”

I kept quiet in the back, absorbing what I saw, street after street, block after block. Between the vacant lots and buildings that had lost their shine, Braddock looked like a town that was either under construction or slated for demolition. Some of the houses were slumped sideways on their foundations, like crooked teeth in an old man’s mouth. Others had porches heaping with trash bags and front yards where tattered couches and rusted bicycles were left to languish in the cold rain. Out the front window of the car, the sky was almost black. My uncle, determined to reach the river before the clouds opened up, tapped his fingers in a rhythm on the steering wheel. Bozo sat shaking his head in the passenger seat, occasionally flicking cigarette ashes out the cracked window.

Braddock, Pennsylvania, in the 1980s. Photo courtesy of Tony Buba

It was hard for me to believe that people lived in Braddock. It was even harder to believe this was the same town where Andrew Carnegie built his first steel mill and opened his first library. It felt downhearted, the husk of an earlier, more glorious iteration. Even as I watched black boys my same age walking in the rain, book bags on their backs, they seemed unreal. Where did they come from? Where was their school? From the back seat of the Cutlass, it all felt like watching television. Except that afternoon it played out in the same blacks and whites and grays, with fleeting Technicolor flashes that vanished as quickly as they appeared. On the other side of the car window, every person became an apparition — the elderly man sorting empty bottles on his front porch, the old woman in a babushka fussing with her mailbox — faint holograms projected on sidewalks crumbling underfoot.

But I also knew Braddock as the place where my father and uncle and aunts were raised and as the area where my grandfather worked as a blacksmith at a wire mill beneath the Rankin Bridge. That was before the houses and corner stores and bars and churches that once attracted steelworkers and their families had dwindled in number. Before white flight and the collapse of Big Steel and the ubiquity of suburbanization had forever altered the landscape — turning the weed-infested sidewalks into nothing more than indicators of the town’s declining health. By the 1980s, the shuttered storefronts and abandoned homes were a meager testament to that shift. Now only memory could retrieve the prosperous days, reignite the blackened neon signs, and repopulate the apartment-building stoops along Talbot.

It was a practice my uncle had given himself to: inhabiting the past long enough to channel a striking facsimile in gestures and words, his performances often tempered by a blood alcohol level that removed all inhibition.

“This place used to be alive,” my uncle said to me, pointing out the window. “Me and your dad ran all over these streets when we were kids. We’d go fishing down at the river, ride bikes until our legs were sore. We never needed anything else.” He looked at me in the rearview mirror to make sure I heard what he said before his voice was swallowed again by the music. For whatever reason, he wanted me to know things used to be different. That everything used to be better.

My uncle parked in the gravel lot at the end of Eleventh Street, a stretch of asphalt that terminated where it met the murky waters of the Mon, and we walked to the edge of the shore, our eyes fixed upriver for any slow-moving ships. Bozo, who had flipped up the collar of his denim jacket to keep the frigid wind off his neck before lighting another cigarette, quietly lumbered at our side.

From the first time I met Bozo, he made me uneasy. Maybe it was the yellowed mustache that spread across his upper lip like a rash or the fact that his blue eyes were always lost in a sea of bloodshot, pupils blown up to the size of small black marbles. Or maybe it was because he only came around when alcohol was abundant and my uncle was too deep in the shit to know any better. To see Bozo in the passenger seat of the Cutlass or splayed across the couch in the living room of my grandmother’s house was a signal that either trouble was mounting or things had already gone wrong. My uncle failed to pick up on my discomfort when Bozo was around, though when I look back, I have no idea how I would have telegraphed that concern. As a young boy, I was afraid to openly express how his friend made me feel.

At our backs stood the Edgar Thomson Steel Works, a sprawling mill built to the size of a small city, puffing fire and artificial clouds into the town’s charcoal sky the same way it had for a hundred years before I was born. No barges passed while we stood there. Instead, the river was quiet. My uncle, who had been consumed by nervous energy during the car ride, turned quiet. It was as if he temporarily disconnected himself from the world. Bozo too seemed distant. But as raindrops quickened across the surface of the river, an overwhelming fear took hold. There were no other people in sight. I was alone in this isolated stretch of river — cold, wet, and suddenly afraid.

The Edgar Thomson Works in Braddock during the 1980s. Photo courtesy of Tony Buba

When my uncle reminisced, he often told stories about growing up in Braddock, where he spent hours playing on Corey Avenue with my father. And where, years later, as teenagers, they raced cars on the long dark road out of town that mirrored the Norfolk Southern railroad tracks before opening up into the Electric Valley and beyond. That was before Vietnam, of course, and a draft in which my father was claimed by the Army and my uncle sent to the Navy. Before my father became a father and before my uncle came back haunted. What we didn’t talk about while standing on that ashen shore were the crushed cans of Miller High Life that littered the floor of his car; or the smell of beer that was heavy on his breath; or the bottle of Cepacol mouthwash he kept tucked under his seat; or the frightening people, like Bozo, who sometimes kept him company when the low times outweighed the high.

My uncle’s situation wasn’t unique, of course. Countless veterans returned from Vietnam plagued by addiction, unable to forget what they saw. It didn’t help that post-traumatic stress disorder was not officially recognized as a mental health condition until 1980. But as study of the disorder progressed, its relationship to addiction as a way to self-medicate became increasingly clearer. Addiction had always loomed in my uncle’s life—alcoholism runs in our family. My grandfather, my uncle and my father’s father, struggled with addiction as well. Alcohol was his vice. He could get mean when he was drunk, and if my father or uncle upset him while he was drinking, he would punish them with lashes from his belt. Once, they even conspired to put an end to the lashings by throwing my grandfather’s belt, buckle and all, in the basement furnace.

My father never took to alcohol the way my grandfather did, and he also never personalized his father’s anger. He was somehow able to let it all fall away. My uncle wasn’t as fortunate.

My uncle was three or fours steps ahead of me, Bozo still at his side, when I stopped walking. As I stared at the dark waters of the Mon lapping against the shore, I became panicked and started to sob. Not contained sobbing that you try to hold in your chest and in your throat because you’re afraid what people will think, but heaving sobs, the type that take hold of the body and forcefully wring it out. At first, my uncle didn’t hear me. He was too far ahead, and the noise from the wind and the mill drowned everything out. But after a moment, the sound was impossible to ignore. By the time he turned around, my face was streaked in tears, chest heaving up and down as I gasped for air while crying so loud that it even shook Bozo from his stupor.

“What’s the matter?” my uncle asked, worried. He was down on one knee and looking me in the eye, his hands on my shoulders. I could smell alcohol on his breath, see the dark rings beneath his eyes. I couldn’t bring myself to say that I was scared of him, his friend, and this place. All I knew was that I wanted to leave. I wiped my face on the sleeve of my jacket before trying again, Bozo still within eyeshot.

“I’m scared,” I said. “I want to go home.”

Two years before my uncle committed suicide — before he exited the world following an altercation on a Wilkinsburg street in October 1988 — we stood on that shore together in Braddock, two parts of an extended family that had grown close through mutual need.

As a kid, I never knew the severity of my uncle’s alcoholism. It wasn’t something our family talked about. And like so many memories, certain details from my childhood are obscured, buried beneath decades of accumulated experiences. While that afternoon in Braddock is crystallized, other similar moments exist only in bits and pieces, like my recollection of a tow truck parked one day in the gravel lot behind my grandmother’s house. It arrived with little fanfare, driven by a man whose face I don’t remember, to drop off what was left of my uncle’s demolished white Cutlass. My uncle emerged from the passenger seat of the tow truck that day, followed by Bozo. Though his car was mangled and unable to be driven, he was somehow unscathed. And that’s all I remember.

Years later, I learned that he wrecked the Cutlass while driving drunk, which was the last time he ever got behind the wheel. A search of Allegheny County court records showed that in late January 1986, my uncle was charged with “Driving under the Influence of Alcohol” and “Careless Driving” — no more than a few weeks after the incident on the shore in Braddock. When I filter these experiences through memory and court documents, it leaves a challenging portrait of this man who played such an important role in my life: January 1986 was a low point for my uncle, but not the bottom.

The last time I remember seeing my uncle was in June 1988, several weeks after my parents had relocated our family from Wilkinsburg to a small house in Pittsburgh’s eastern suburbs. He and my aunt and my cousin had come for dinner and to see our new house.

“Nice shack,” my uncle said, walking slowly through the living room on his way to the kitchen. After wrapping his knuckles against the wood cabinets, an impromptu quality check, he came to the sink and turned on the tap. It was hot outside, so my uncle ran his hand under cold water before wiping it across the back of his neck. Then he bent forward and cupped his hands together and drank as if he were lapping water from a creek.

“You know, we have glasses,” my mother said, smiling. My uncle laughed before walking out the kitchen door to see our backyard.

On that afternoon in Braddock, when I told my uncle I wanted to go home, the expression on his face fell. It was as if reality came back into focus for a split second and he suddenly remembered that I wasn’t just another burnout along for the ride — that I was a nine-year-old boy, his brother’s son, his nephew. I recognized the look. It was an expression born from the type of erratic behavior that seemed to dog him so much at that time. It reminded me of when he used to hide bottles of whiskey in the basement rafters to mask the severity of his drinking, and how he would take a swig and then look at me while pretending to button his lips shut with an imaginary lock and key, as if to say, Keep this between us.

When my uncle pushed the key into the ignition of the Cutlass, the radio roared back to life. For a moment, the interior was filled with the sound of distorted guitars and drums. But the music lasted only a few seconds before he silenced it with a twist of the volume knob — perhaps because it reminded him too much of his earlier, more jovial state. As my uncle drove away, the Mon growing smaller and smaller in his rearview mirror, we approached Braddock Avenue with the mood inside the car as quiet as it was loud on our way down. Bozo fidgeted in his seat and struggled to make small talk, choosing instead to pull another Marlboro from the soft pack in his jacket. Waiting on the red light at the corner of Eleventh and Braddock, my uncle caught my eyes in the rearview mirror and smiled.